Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum

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The Urban Water Challenge

There are many dynamics that contribute to the increasing challenge of providing enough clean water for the population that the Earth now needs to support. While the default issue is often the impacts that climate change has on watersheds across the globe, a critical element to be considered in the ongoing discussion around clean water access regards what is happening in the world’s cities. Global urban water supplies are increasingly polluted and will likely be unable to meet rapidly-growing demand.

Most of the major cities in the world have already grown too large to adequately deliver water to all their inhabitants. More than a slow motion train wreck, this is a challenge that needs to be addressed immediately as more and more people are living in urban environments where access to water is difficult or the quality of water being delivered is compromised.

A new in-depth report by The Nature Conservancy underscores the much broader global implications of rapid population growth in cities paired with unprecedented threats to their water supplies. Add to that mounting pressure on cities to take action on other environmental woes, like ill effects of climate change, and it becomes an even taller order for budget-constrained local governments.

The Nature Conservancy found that 1 in 3 of world’s 100 largest cities — which are cumulatively home to some 700 million people — are currently “water stressed.” That means water use by all sectors exceeds 40 percent of total availability from watersheds.

“Cities face twin challenges: water that is both scarce and polluted,” the report authors state. “Rising demand has been allowed to grow unchecked, competing users upstream do not talk to or trust one another, increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns have been altered by climate change, and the watersheds where our water comes from have been degraded.”

A key challenge highlighted in The Nature Conservancy report is a history of short-sightedness when it comes to where our water is coming from.

Watersheds already in use are increasingly jeopardized by pollution, and new potential water supply options to meet increasing demand don’t look much better.

Significant deforestation has already impacted an estimated 40 percent of the hundreds of urban watersheds analyzed in the report, despite warnings from some in the water industry about resulting increases in pollutants since as far back as the 1980s.

“I was surprised seeing the trend over time,” said Robert McDonald, lead study author and The Nature Conservancy’s senior scientist for urban sustainability.

Add to that an anticipated 10 percent increase in the utilization of agricultural lands as a source for urban water by the year 2030. The use of fertilizer is projected to grow 58 percent during the same period, raising serious questions about the safety of water originating in those areas.

The report provides a wealth of information on the challenge for urban water systems and I will be posting excerpts from the report over the next few weeks.


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NASA Focuses on Trying to Save the Earth

As painful as the past three years have been, the current drought plaguing the western U.S. may be providing only a hint of what is to come. A new NASA study finds that should we continue on the path of increasing greenhouse emissions, the damage to climate will result in a much drier planet and a megadrought far more severe than what we have experienced lately.

As an editorial note, I still find it extraordinary that there are constituencies, particularly in government and big business, that deny the findings of the very organization the landed men on the moon.

From the CNN report:

There is no precedent in contemporary weather records for the kinds of droughts the country’s West will face, if greenhouse gas emissions stay on course, a NASA study said.

No precedent even in the past 1,000 years.

The feared droughts would cover most of the western half of the United States — the Central Plains and the Southwest.

Those regions have suffered severe drought in recent years. But it doesn’t compare in the slightest to the ‘megadroughts’ likely to hit them before the century is over due to global warming.

The consequences of climate change go far beyond warming temperatures, which scientists say are melting the polar ice caps and raising sea levels.

These will be epochal, worthy of a chapter in Earth’s natural history.

Even if emissions drop moderately, droughts in those regions will get much worse than they are now, NASA said.

The space agency’s study conjures visions of the sun scorching cracked earth that is baked dry of moisture for feet below the surface, across vast landscapes, for decades. Great lake reservoirs could dwindle to ponds, leaving cities to ration water to residents who haven’t fled east.

“Our projections for what we are seeing is that, with climate change, many of these types of droughts will likely last for 20, 30, even 40 years,” said NASA climate scientist Ben Cook.

The Dust Bowl

That’s worse and longer than the historic Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when “black blizzards” — towering, blustery dust walls — buried Southern Plains homes, buggies and barns in dirt dunes.

It lasted about 10 years. Though long, it was within the framework of a contemporary natural drought.

To find something almost as extreme as what looms, one must go back to Medieval times.

Nestled in the shade of Southwestern mountain rock, earthen Ancestral Pueblo housing offers a foreshadowing. The tight, lively villages emptied out in the 13th century’s Great Drought that lasted more than 30 years.

No water. No crops. Starvation drove populations out to the east and south.

Much, much worse

If NASA’s worst case scenario plays out, what’s to come could be worse.

Its computations are based on greenhouse gas emissions continuing on their current course. And they produce an 80% chance of at least one drought that could last for decades.

One “even exceeding the duration of the long term intense ‘megadroughts’ that characterized the really arid time period known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly,” Cook said.

That was a period of heightened global temperatures that lasted from about 1100 to 1300 — when those Ancestral Pueblos dispersed. Global average temperatures are already higher now than they were then, the study said.

Massive data calculation

The NASA team’s study was very data heavy.

It examined past wet and dry periods using tree rings going back 1,000 years and compared them with soil moisture from 17 climate models, NASA said in the study published in Science Advances.

Scientists used super computers to calculate the models forward along the lines of human induced global warming scenarios. The models all showed a much drier planet.

Superhuman challenge

Some Southwestern areas that are currently drought-stricken are filling up with more people, creating more demand for water while reservoirs are already strained.

The predicted megadroughts will wrack water supplies much harder, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center said.

“These droughts really represent events that nobody in the history of the United States has ever had to deal with,” Cook said.

Compared with the last millennium, the dryness will be unprecedented. Adapting to it will be tough.

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Another Type of “Broken Record”

After the torrential rains of December, one would have thought that the Golden State might have started to turn the corner on the drought that has plagued the state for years.  No such luck.  From Slate magazine:

California’s epic drought is about to set another seemingly unbreakable record.

With just two days remaining in the month, no rain in the forecast, and a monster ridge of high pressure camped out overhead, San Francisco is now all but assured of its driest January in city history—exactly zero (that’s right, 0.00) inches have fallen so far.

If the dearth of raindrops holds out, it will beat the record set last year, when just 0.01 inches fell at the airport. The long-term average rainfall in San Francisco in January is about 4.5 inches, with records dating continuously back to 1850. In the past, the city has received up to 14.5 inches in January (in 1916).

And it’s not just San Francisco. In most of northern and central California—the hardest hit regions of the state’s drought—rainfall in 2015 has been less than 2 percent of normal.

California Drought 2015

Any hopes the state had of finally turning the corner on its oppressive, possibly climate change–fueled megadrought have withered like the Sacramento River. Progress made in refilling the state’s largest reservoirs thanks to a series of major December storms has stalled, and key rainfall indices are back to being below normal. Snowpack in the Sierras, which supplies more than 60 percent of the state’s water resources, is down to a dismal 25 percent of normal. New data released by the National Drought Mitigation Center on Thursday showed 40 percent of the state is now classified as “exceptional drought,” the most severe category.

California was off-the-charts hot in 2014, shattering the previous statewide heat record by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit. That may not sound like a lot, but until last year, the entire historical range for all years dating back to 1895 was only a bit over 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The distance separating the now second- and third-warmest years (1934 and 1996) is just one-tenth of 1 degree. The temperature so far in 2015 has been much above normal, as well.

As the drought plods along, the impact on sensitive industries like agriculture has continued to worsen. This winter, the California salmon industry was decimated by warmer-than-normal water in the state’s lakes and streams, reports Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reports that the state is considering temporary dams on the vulnerable Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta in a desperate attempt to keep saltwater from encroaching inland into sensitive wetlands and the state’s drinking water supply. The delta sends water to about 25 million urban Californians and helps irrigate a vast section of the state’s agricultural production.

For now, California is the country’s leading dairy-producing state. That might change if the drought continues at this pace. Iowa Public Radio reports that there’s been an increasing exodus of dairy farmers from California to the Midwest, where supplies of grass and grain are more stable. With the specter of climate change, these kinds of stories hint at what could be a broader decline in the country’s leading agricultural state in coming years.

As for the current drought, there’s increasing evidence that last month’s boost in rains could have been a fluke. In the weeks ahead, the whole of America is about to get a blast from the ghost of weather past. It’s as if Marty McFly transported the entire country back to this time last year. Same weather pattern, same result: bitter cold in the East, a baking-hot and dry West.

The primary culprit, as it was last year, is a stubborn ridge of high pressure camped out over the Pacific coast, shunting moisture northward away from California, and opening the atmospheric gates for wave after wave of frigid Arctic air to spill southward toward the East Coast.